Capital Records at Mid-Century

Capitol Records at Midcentury: A Moment When the Beatles were Simply Foreign Music

Janet Borgerson and Jonathan Schroeder are back again! In this holiday-themed post they discuss several albums which appear in their new book Designed for Hi-Fi Living. Did you miss their previous posts? Read them here and here.

“Capitol of the World” from Capitol Records is one of the key series we feature in our book Designed for Hi-Fi Living: The Vinyl LP in Midcentury America. The “Capitol of the World” series, introduced in 1956 and active into the 1970s, encompassed a wide range of titles, from its early best-selling German Beer Drinking Songs and Honeymoon in Rome to more “exotic” titles such as Australian Aboriginals and Kasongo! Modern Music of the Belgian Congo. Produced by Dave Dexter, “Capitol of the World” included over 400 albums representing at least twenty-five countries. Each LP introduced listeners to music, images, and cultural highlights from around the globe. In writing our book, we argued that “Capitol of the World” represented an early foray into what now might be called world music.

Many “Capitol of the World” LP titles focused on faraway places, and some seemed intent on moving US citizens out of wartime antagonisms against Axis enemies and encouraged travel to these countries as tourism and airlines enjoyed a post war boom. Liner notes provided guidance for appreciating the culture, the food and mostly importantly, the music. For example, the war in the Pacific was still recent memory when Capitol released several Japanese-themed “Capitol of the World” albums, including Japanese Sketches and Japan Revisited, both recorded in Tokyo and featuring “authentic Japanese instruments and songs.” As the liner notes for the 1958 “Capitol of the World” album The War Years state, “Regardless of where one now lives, about the only good memory of The War Years is the music – the songs that were popular when the world was afire.”

 “Capitol of the World” also included a series of Christmas albums from around the world. Debuting in 1956 with Christmas in England, Christmas in Germany, Christmas in Holland, Christmas in Mexico, and Christmas in Sweden, these holiday LPs closely conformed to the contours of American immigration patterns. One of several Christmas records that we discuss in Designed for Hi-Fi Living, Christmas in Cubawas part of the second round of the “Capitol of the World” Christmas releases, which included Austria, Portugal, Australia, Brazil, and Poland. All were recorded “on location,” and they were promoted as a collectible set.

Christmas in Cuba features Cuban folk singer Fernando Albuerne (1920-2000) performing “cherished Cuban Christmas music” with a pop feel. A Cuban Christmas, we are told, represents a very different holiday than the snowy white Christmas of Bing Crosby: “The golden, warming sun beams down through the azure December skies to provide amazing contrast to the traditional conception of sleigh bells, snowdrifts and log fires.” The liner notes appear in both English and Spanish, perhaps in a nod to the album’s overseas interest, and the growing Spanish-speaking population in the US; and the appearance of dual language liner notes on a major label is noteworthy. We included Christmas in Cuba in our Cuba chapter, but discuss many other “Capitol of the World” albums in their own chapter.

Capitol of the World’s producer, Dave Dexter, a respected jazz critic and jazz producer in the early 1950s, embraced the possibilities and profit potential of re-releasing selected “foreign” music. In his time with Capitol’s international artists and repertoire division, he grew to resent much of the growing influence of rock and roll in the sales charts. Dexter notoriously rejected the Beatles’ first three singles, which were sent over from England to him by Capitol’s majority owner, EMI. At the time, the Beatles, from England, were simply considered “foreign” music. When he did agree to release Beatles records on Capitol, he altered the running order of the albums, dropped some songs altogether, changed the cover design and LP titles, cobbled together US albums from earlier British releases, and even remixed the master tapes to produce what he thought was a better sound for the American market. Dexter has been roundly criticized for meddling with the Fab Four. For example, in his book on the Beatles Second Album, rock critic Dave Marsh excoriates Dexter, taking him to task for “butchering” the Beatles records, and calling him the “man who hated the Beatles.”

We discovered that Dexter’s papers were archived in the LaBudde Special Collections Department at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and were able to view some promising material online. When we called the library, and mentioned our interest in Dexter, Chuck Haddix, the amiable archivist who was responsible for securing the Dave E. Dexter, Jr. Collectionreplied “Oh, you must be interested in the Beatles!” When we told him that we weren’t focused on the mop-tops, rather, we were researching the “Capitol of the World” titles, he urged us to visit, so we planned a trip to Kansas City.

When we arrived at the library, we found a treasure trove of material on Capitol Records during the decades that Dexter worked there. He seemed to have saved everything. The materials revealed how he was plagued by his tragic mistake to not release the Beatles’ early hits in the US. He seemed much more interested in jazz, and later, music from around the world. We consider his goal of bringing world music to the US a worthy effort – for the most part.

We poured over the details of his production of the “Capitol of the World” series that expose the internal workings of a major midcentury record company. We appreciated the help of the library staff, and took up Chuck Haddix’s enthusiastic recommendations for Kansas City restaurants and live jazz. The memos, sales reports, and memorabilia in the collection proved invaluable for telling the story of the “Capitol of the World” series. For example, a sales report from the early days of “Capitol of the World” series revealed the importance of export to its success: one out of every five Capitol of the World albums was exported. Clearly, markets existed outside the US, suggesting that Capitol’s musical vision of many counties not only touched those living in the US, but also listeners living abroad. In other words, not only a listener in Louisville, Kentucky, but also in Beirut, Lebanon, may have come to “understand” the music of Lebanon or Sweden through the lens of “Capitol of the World” records.

The archival materials reveal that Lloyd Dunn, Vice President of Capitol’s International Division, who helped found the Grammy awarding National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences, was primarily focused on increasing “Capitol of the World” sales. Over the years they worked together, Dexter often received pointed memos from Dunn that included numerous ideas of how to package – or in some cases, repackage – recordings, and in other ways improve the “Capitol of the World” project. A 1964 memo from Dunn titled “Change in C.O.W status,” reflects the shifting terrain of pop music during the period: “We find it necessary to change our method of releasing and marketing certain C.O.W items. Today it is frequently impossible to distinguish what is “Pops” and what is C.O.W., due to the influx and popularity of foreign artists.”

Throughout the life of the “Capitol of the World” series, Capitol seemed to waver about what – and who – the records were produced for, and how best to promote them. Were they for curious American listeners exploring other musical traditions? Ethnic groups within the US? Or people elsewhere in the listening world? In particular, they had trouble deciding if “Capitol of the World” records should be packaged as “ethnic” or “popular.” Some titles were meant for “ethnic” markets, as a 1958 promotional article from the Los Angeles Examiner reports: “Most of our albums are directed for a specific and largely ethnic audience, but some of the albums, particularly the ‘German Beer Drinking Songs,’ are among Capitol’s best sellers.” In retrospect, Capitol’s promotional efforts for the “Capitol of the World” series reflected the emerging art of market segmentation and anticipated the current popularity of so-called world music.

Today, these LPs appear as earnest attempts to offer listeners exposure to often unfamiliar cultural traditions, as well as opportunities to recall experiences from a trip abroad or a tour of duty. We continue to collect “Capitol of the World” records, and occasionally come across one that we regret not being able to include in our Design for Hi-Fi Living book, such as The Magic of Athens and Christmas in the Philippines. Perhaps in the second edition?